How to judge/score wine like a pro

By: WineMarketDate: 15/07/2014

Intro to wine judging

In the olden days, white lab coat wearing winemakers would pontificate in small groups, standing around white tables covered in glasses of wine, in a quiet room, mumbling about tannin profiles, wine faults and balance. While things haven’t changed that much in the wine judging scene, there has been a greater shift to reflect our more contemporary times. Sure, the scoring of wine is still intrinsic to the wine show system, but there are less white coats, way more female judges, sometimes even some music playing, and the sandwiches you get at your lunch break have upgraded from egg salad, to curried egg salad, neatly cut into triangles.

The way that those shiny little medals get onto wine bottles is still a mystery to some – yes, the judging process is still pretty much the same, but there’s broader scope in which wines are being assessed, and a more open-minded nature to the judging. In the ye olden days, many of the best wines came from a narrow style band, like big, full bodied-reds or white wines with nice oak use. These days, the background of judges is drawn from sommeliers, wine writers, winemakers, wine students, wine buyers and even the occasional wine enthusiast, drawn from the ranks of non nerdy wine people.

What’s happened is a big swing away from singular sorts of results, and with it, broad style appreciation has crept into wines that win those shiny medals. It’s an exciting time to be drinking Australian wine.

What’s happened is a big swing away from singular sorts of results, and with it, broad style appreciation has crept into wines that win those shiny medals. It’s an exciting time to be drinking Australian wine.

How does it work at a wine show

How does the judging work? One might ask. Do these posses of wine geeks just sip and spit and wave a magic wand, or is there a more technical process behind it all – and just how do those numbers end up meaning a wine is good, bad, excellent or to be used as drain cleaner?

Well, first thing is first. Let’s look at wine shows. Here, groups of judges from various backgrounds are put together in ‘panels’. Each ‘panel’ is generally a blend of various wine backgrounds; a spread between media, winemakers, sommeliers and other sorts of wine people. Each panel has a leader, or a Panel Chair. The Panel Chair is there to ‘guide’ the group, and to be a liaison with the Chairperson of the show, the big boss, who kind of makes sure all the decisions about wines are along a good trajectory.

With the panel chair, there are usually two ‘senior judges’, know simply as ‘Judges” – these two individuals are there to make executive decisions about wine, and only the Judges and Panel Chairs scores are kept or used in the judging process. Alongside the Panel Chair and Judges are what’s called Associate Judges, these are judges who use their skills to help the panel find the best wines, but their scores aren’t used in final judgment – though increasingly their opinion is helping make better decisions. In the olden days, Associate Judges were to be seen and not heard, to learn, and train to one day take on the glory of a more senior role. There are usually two or three Associate Judges.

The panel of five or so people then stands in front of wine laid out in numbered glasses and starts swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting. They make assessments about the wines, and have no idea what is in each glass, aside grape variety, and occasionally the region from which the wine comes and its vintage year. Then, the scoring begins, and when the panel has finished scoring, they sit down and call out their scores, trying to make a consensus about the best wines, and wines which they should consider for bronze, silver and gold medals. The best of the gold medals are retasted to make the grade for trophy judging, and ultimately, the best in their class.

The best idea when tasting is to look for wines that have wonderful, evocative perfume, great texture, balance of acidity, fruit and winemaking (like oak, if there is any) and then have great length of flavour, and pleasant flavours. Tasting a few wines in a row helps work out what is bad, good, average or great.

But what about the scoring?

This seems like a pretty confusing, pretty singular thing. In the olden days, the scale used to judge wines was out of a score of 20 points, where three (3) points was possible for colour, seven (7) points was possible for aroma and ten (10) points was possible for flavor. Most judges just have a ‘feel’ and ‘understanding’ for each wine, and these days no longer break down scores in this way, preferring just to give scores out of 20. However, some wine shows now score out of 100 points, to align more with media.

With two scales now in use in wine shows, a good translation is probably needed for what is bronze, what is silver and what is a gold medal, and what doesn’t get a medal at all. The 100 point scale changes somewhat between wine shows, but the 20 point scale is pretty easy. The below graph borrowed from the wine review and commentary website The Wine Front ( is a pretty helpful look at how the scales can translate.

Now you’ve seen how the points, medals, stars, scores and words all relate, perhaps it’s time you donned a lab coat, poured out ten glasses of different wine and tried your hand at applying some scores? Or maybe just stick with the ones that all those fancy wine judges have prepared for you…

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